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The Witness is a unique and special videogame. It starts with the basic premise of line puzzles. You are also on a beautiful island all alone, but primarily you’re tasked with beating simple line puzzles. It’s from this simple premise that the game manages to build upon this formula over and over again and ultimately builds a game which can entertain you for 40+ hours. It may seem impossible until you actually play The Witness and then you discover how ingenious they make something so simple to begin with; it’s truly a remarkable achievement.
The Witness has zero tutorials or text on screen to explain how to use its mechanics for the line puzzles. You simply have to learn as you progress. This approach is very interesting and has many benefits but also some flaws. As you get deeper into the game, most of the time the actual solution to a puzzle isn’t the difficult part but just working out what the rules are to which you have to find the solution becomes the challenge.
This approach can work wonders because just when you think you understand the mechanics of a puzzle, the game then throws something else into the mix which previously breaks what you thought was working and you have to rethink your strategy. This happens over and over and is incredible game design, constantly subverting your expectations and surprising you. It’s in these simple moments when you realize what ‘the thing’ is and you really get that perfect eureka moment that only games like this can give you.
Early on the game will show you puzzles that you will have no clue how to solve, but having gained more knowledge on the island later you can come back and tackle them easily. Almost like a Metroid game, you can go anywhere you want in The Witness, but certain areas will be ‘locked’ by your lack of knowledge regarding certain puzzle mechanics. This sense of freedom is mostly fantastic but did lead to the only really frustrating moment I had with the game.
During my first play session, one area I stumbled into and it seemed like I got stuck and couldn’t leave without solving a certain puzzle. I couldn’t see a way out (there was but it required a mechanic I wouldn’t learn for hours after I had come to this area), but I searched for ages and got very annoyed that I couldn’t just leave and try a different puzzle like every other area. I later found out after beating the game and reading around that this is considered by many as the hardest section of the game, so maybe I just got very unlucky by going there early on, but I had to mention it as it did happen unfortunately.
For completionists this game will be tough, but walking away and trying something else is the smartest option to take. The longer you bang your head against a puzzle the further you will get from solving it. Try taking a photo of it and writing down where it was so if you do end up solving it after trying other puzzles you can easily go back to it and nail it.
At times this game made me feel like a lunatic for writing down multiple crazy notes that if anyone saw wouldn’t be able to make any sense of and perhaps be concerned for my state of mind. But then when they help you find the solution, you feel like an unappreciated genius. This is the line that when The Witness is on point it walks perfectly and is an incredibly satisfying experience.
I briefly mentioned earlier, but it’s worth stating again how beautiful this game really is. It has a very unique style which isn’t very similar to most games I’ve played and for that it will stand out in my mind for a while. A screenshot is instantly recognizable as from this game and that is a great way to leave your mark on the player.
However, given how much this game totally nails both visual style and game play, I can’t help but feel like there was a missed opportunity with the soundtrack. Occasionally there is background noise but during many areas there simply was almost nothing to listen to. This is a shame as for a game that you will spend lots of time just standing in one place trying to solve a puzzle, it would make perfect sense for a fantastic, relaxing soundtrack to accompany it. I found myself frequently listening to music and podcasts whilst playing this game, something I usually only do while playing sports games, and feel like had this game had something similar to what Journey had it could have tied the experience together just that little bit more.
The Witness doesn’t require you to beat every puzzle to finish it, which is a clever choice I think as forcing players to do everything could easily fatigued some who would like to see the endgame puzzles. I ‘triggered’ an ending for the purpose of this review but after seeing the end I backed up to a previous save and will enjoy finishing the rest of the islands puzzles and secrets.
Another small missed opportunity I feel is the story. I really like the minimalist approach here as it suits the tone of this game completely but even a little more would have felt like a step in the right direction. Having recently played The Talos Principle, which is also primarily a puzzle solving game, it did tell a very interesting story in the background via terminals and audio logs. Unfortunately The Witness has audio logs but they are merely pretentious, long monologues performed in a tone reminiscent of a college drama class.
I may have mentioned a few things about The Witness that I feel didn’t totally hit the mark but it cannot be overstated enough just how good the puzzles are. After doing over 400 line puzzles you think I would be sick of them; but actually I want more. Some of the ways the game changes the formula feels like a natural progression, but then other times I was completely blown away with the ways they switched it up and kept asking more of me as a player.
A loop I kept experiencing would be that of delight after finishing a rather difficult puzzle and feeling really good about myself only to then see what the next puzzle was and be immediately dropped down to reality in the best way possible. Never before have I seen a game run with one concept for so long and continually keep it fresh and interesting to play.
Ultimately as a puzzle game, The Witness succeeds on nearly every level. It has quite simply created some of the best puzzles I have ever played in my life. As an overall experience that are a few small things that maybe could’ve been better but I still adored my time with the game and would love to have my memory wiped so I could do it all over again.